ESL Journal
Defining Literature and Texts Relevant to an EFL Classroom
Traditionally, literature (with a large L) is defined as the 'best' writing produced in a given language or society and that which is considered as a literary canon for all times. This normally includes 'classical' writers belonging to the past, and often excludes contemporary writing. However, in the post-modern, deconstructionist age, the definition of literature took on a new shape to include texts such as advertising copy, graffiti and public notices which use literary devices like parallelism, rhyme, rhythm and metaphor (Maley, 2001). These are thought to be appropriate and relevant in the classroom because of their use of literary devices. They are considered to be worth interpretation, and more relevant than the canonical texts which sometimes pose difficulty for the students, because of the nature of language used. Therefore, literature now encompasses popular fiction, advertising and film in order to make the whole teaching/learning process more attractive and interesting. According to Scholes:

What students need from the kind of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make sense of their worlds, to determine their own interests, ... to see through the manipulations of all sorts of texts in all sorts of media, and to express their own views in some appropriate manner (Scholes 1985:15-16).

A Definition of 'Literature'

However, a definition of 'literature' is not a homogeneous one. There remain problems in defining the term, especially once the socio-historical and cultural factors are considered. As pointed out by Williams, (1976:183): 'Literature' is a difficult word, in part because its conventional contemporary meaning appears, at first sight, so simple.' By the late twentieth century, 'literature' as a concept and as a term, has become problematic, either through ideological symbol of the high culture 'Canon', or, conversely, through demystification by radical critical theory. Therefore, as pointed out by Eagleton (1976:166), it is now a state when 'Literature must indeed be re-situated within the field of general cultural production; but each mode of such production demands a semiology of its own, which is not conflatable with some universal "cultural" discourse'.

The word 'literature' in itself can be used in a number of ways. As observed by Widdowson (1999), however, in normal usage, a distinction tends to be drawn and signalled by the fact that when reference is made to critical, theoretical or promotional literature, there is a tendency to put the definite article in front of the word, whereas, to refer to 'literary' writings, the use of definite article is left out. Again, 'Literature' with an upper-case 'L' and within inverted commas signifies the idea of that global body of literary writing which has been recognised with Matthew Arnold's famous utterance, as quoted in Widdowson (ibid: 4) - 'the best that has been known and said in the world'.

The modern Western concept of literature became securely established at the same time as the appearance of the modern research university that is commonly identified with the founding of the University of Berlin around 1810 (Miller, 2002). The sense of literature was strongly shaped by the university-trained writers so to shape citizens by giving them knowledge of the best that is known and thought in the world. Literature has thus been credited the highest achievement of aesthetic and moral merit, and has acquired the status of a universal resource of form and ethical modes for human kind. There are also collocations of such authors and texts as constituting 'The Classics', 'The (Great) Tradition' 'The Canon', and the standard 'Set authors/Books' on all secondary and tertiary education syllabuses. On the other hand, 'literature' with small 'l' and no inverted commas is used either in a neutral discursive capacity, or to represent the writings which are 'literary' in the sense that they identify themselves quite self-consciously as belonging to the artificial discursive realm of 'creative' or 'imaginative' writing as opposed to the other, more quotidian forms of written communication (Widdowson, 1999).

Although, apparently there is not much difficulty in phrases such as 'English literature' or 'contemporary literature', until the question regarding whether all books and writing are 'literature' and what are the criteria set in selecting are raised. Widdowson (1999:8) elaborates the problematic areas in definitions of 'literature', definitions that have made entries in pioneering encyclopaedias and references. For example, the entry on 'literature' in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia, reads: 'a body of written works. The name is often applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the excellence of their execution'. The distinction between 'literature' and 'drama' also poses problems, apparently because drama is a form primarily written for spoken performance.

The above definition introduces the notion of 'imagination' as the defining characteristic of 'literary' writing and discriminates in favour of those writings 'distinguished by the intentions of their authors'. The argument does not make it clear how an author's intention 'distinguishes' a work as literature. Widdowson adds that although it may seem natural for one to think that some works may be better than others, the problem is, however, that the 'canonising process is cognate with the discourse of evaluation: the criteria are imprecise, unexplained, tacitly assumed, and thoroughly naturalised' (ibid.:8).

Moreover, the reasons given for the received canon rely, on notions of 'beauty of form', 'emotional effect', 'artistic merit', and on the judgement of those who can 'recognise' these qualities when they see them. Once again, the criteria of identifying a canon is self-selecting, given - whereas, in reality, it is historically constructed on behalf of some powerful and resolute ideological imperatives. The questions regarding who constructed the canon, when and for whom, on what criteria and to what ends, readily destabilise the notions of 'Literature', 'canon', and 'literary value' (ibid: 13). This is supported and as pointed out by Eagleton (1983:11) that a literary work or tradition can not be valuable 'in itself' because the term 'value' itself is a transitive term equating to whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes. It is thus quite possible that, through a transformation of history, in the future there may be the emergence of a society which will get nothing at all out of Shakespeare. His works, full of styles of thought and feeling may simply seem desperately unfamiliar, limited or irrelevant to that society making him no more valuable than much present-day graffiti.

From a historical perspective, as noted by Williams (1976), the term 'literature' came into English from 14th century, in the sense of polite learning through reading. A man of 'literature' equated to a man of wide reading. Literature, corresponded mainly to the modern meaning of literacy meaning both an ability to read and a condition of being well-read. The general sense of 'polite learning', steadily attached to the idea of printed books, was laying the basis for the later specialization. Colet as cited in Williams (ibid), in sixteenth century, distinguished between 'literature' and what he called ' blotterature' - referring to books which were below the standards of polite learning.

However, Miller (2002) adds that the word comes from a Latin stem and cannot be detached from its Roman-Christian-European roots. Literature in a modern sense, however, appeared in the European West and began in the late seventeenth century, at the earliest. Even a definition of 'literature' as including memoirs, history, collections of letters, learned treatises, etc., as well as poems, printed plays, and novels, comes after the time of Samuel Johnson's dictionary (1755). The restricted sense of literature as just poems, plays, and novels is even more recent. From eighteenth century, the term 'literary' was extended beyond its equivalence to 'literate': probably first in the general sense of well-read but from mid-eighteenth century to refer to the practice and profession of writing: 'literary merit' (Goldsmith in Williams, 1976); 'literary reputation' (Johnson in Williams, 1976). This appears to be closely connected with the heightened self-consciousness of the profession of authorship, in the period of transition from patronage to the bookselling market. Yet 'literature' and 'literary', in these new senses, still referred to the whole body of books and writing; or if distinction was made it was in terms of falling below the level of polite learning rather than of particular kinds of writing. All works within the scope of polite learning came to be described as 'literature' and all such interests and practices as 'literary'.

The idea of a 'Nationallitteratur' developed in Germany from the 1770s. The sense of 'a nation' having 'a literature' is a crucial social and cultural, probably also political, development (Williams, 1976:185). As noted by Miller (2002) literature is associated with the gradual rise of almost universal literacy in the West. Literacy, furthermore, is associated with the gradual appearance from the seventeenth century onward of Western-style democracies that allowed citizens more or less free access to printed materials and to the means of printing new ones although, this freedom has never been complete, with its various forms of censorship. However, according to Miller, literature as a Western cultural institution, is a special, historically conditioned form of literature in the sense that it is a universal aptitude for words or other signs to be taken as literature.

The attempt to trace a class of writing to be specialised as 'literature', however, has proved difficult just because it is incomplete. In relation to the past, 'literature' is still a relatively general word with a steady distinction and separation of other kinds of writing - philosophy, essays, history, and so on - which may or may not possess 'literary merit' or be of 'literary interest'. Although, they may be 'well-written', still may not normally be described as 'literature'.

As pointed out by Williams (1976), teaching of literature usually includes poems, plays and novels; other kinds of 'serious' writing are described as 'general' or 'discursive'. There is also 'literary criticism' - judgement of how a ('creative' or 'imaginative') work is written - as distinct, often, from discussion of 'ideas' or 'history' or 'general subject-matter'. However, most poems and plays and novels are not seen as 'literature' as they fall below the old distinctive feature of literature, of 'polite learning'. Therefore, they are not substantial or important enough to be called 'works of literature'.

Nevertheless, the major shift represented by the modern complex of 'literature', 'art', 'aesthetic', 'creative' and 'imaginative' is a matter of social and cultural history. 'Literature' itself must be seen as a late medieval and Renaissance isolation of the skills of reading and of the qualities of the book; this was much emphasised by the development of printing. Then 'literature' was specialized towards 'imaginative writing', within the basic assumptions of Romanticism. It is interesting to note that it was, primarily, poetry, defined in 1586 as 'the arte of express the very faculty of speaking or writing Poetically' (in Williams, 1976:187). The specialization of 'poetry' to metrical composition is evident from mid seventeenth century, although this specialization of 'poetry' to verse, together with the increasing importance of prose forms such as the novel, made 'literature' the most available general word. It had behind it the Renaissance sense of 'litterae humanae', mainly to distinguish between the secular from religious writing. 'Poetry' had been the high skills of writing and speaking in the special context of high imagination. 'Literature' in its nineteenth century sense, repeated this, though excluding speaking. However, it still remains problematic, not only because of the further specialization to 'imaginative' and 'creative' subject-matter (as distinct from 'imaginative' and 'creative' writing) but also because of the new importance of many forms of writing for speech. For example, books and writings meant for broadcasting which the specialization to books seemed by definition to exclude.

However, in recent years the terms 'literature' and 'literary' have been increasingly challenged, on what is conventionally their own ground, by concepts of 'writing' and 'communication'. Moreover, in relation to this reaction, 'literary' has acquired two unfavourable senses, as belonging to the printed book or to past literature rather than to active contemporary writing and speech; or as (unreliable) evidence from books rather than 'factual enquiry'. This latter quality touches the whole difficult complex of the relations between 'literature' (poetry, fiction, imaginative writing) and 'real' or actual experience. The term 'literary' has also been a term of criticism in discussion of certain other arts, notably painting and music, where the work in its own medium is seen as inadequately autonomous, and as dependent on 'external' meanings of a 'literary' kind.

However, in an attempt to 'demystify' literature, McRae (1991:2-3), differentiates between 'referential' language, which communicates on the informative level only, and 'representational' language, which engages the imagination of the reader. He defines a literary text as any imaginative material that stimulates a response in the reader, including songs, cartoons, idioms and proverbs.

According to Halliday (1985), the text as an expression of experience can be the closest definition of 'literature', and if readers can identify with events or characters and project themselves into them imaginatively, then a certain truth to experience can be created. Carter and Long (1991) suggest that the imaginative and truthful re-creation of experience is often taken to be a distinguishing characteristic of established literary texts and to Halliday (1985:98), 'Learning is essentially a process of constructing meanings...involving cognition and interpretation'. Literature, a reflection of reality and of life, thus, could have plural interpretations as individual experiences and contribute to one's language development.

Literary Language: Does It Exist?

Although many teachers and literary critics hold the view that literature is read in a different way from non-literary writing, evidence suggests that a 'linguistic' distinction between literary and other kind of text is difficult to preserve. This leads to the idea that there are no particular linguistic features found in literature that are not found in other kinds of texts.

To some extent, literary and language aptitude cannot easily be separated, for one will always be dependent on the other. According to Short (1983), writers of literary works use language creatively, whereas Brumfit and Carter (1986:6) suggest that there is no such thing as 'literary language' and it is 'impossible to isolate any single or special property of language which is exclusive to a literary work'. However, for Carter and Long (1991:108) the creative use of language is important in determining literary merit, but with reservations, as the nature of creativity is not clearly defined, particularly when it comes to classifying a piece as 'literature' or as 'good literature'.

Short and Candlin (1986) also find similarities between literary and other kinds of discourse. Carter (1988) determines from earlier works in stylistics that style is not an exclusively literary phenomenon. A comparison between the language of poetry and the language of advertising reveals that they are more or less similar in their use of the linguistic features such as rhyme, metre, ambiguity, metaphor, parallelism, linguistic deviation, fascinating examples of play between words, and formal patterns, which can be creative and entertaining. In Eagleton's view (1983:9), there is no 'essence' of literature whatsoever. Any text can be read pragmatically or poetically, be it literary or non-literary. However, one of the reasons for using literature, given by Collie and Slater (1987), is that because literary language is concise, it is aesthetically satisfying, and therefore memorable, echoing a traditional reason for teaching literature which is as a model of good writing as rhetoric (Gilroy and Parkinson, 1996).

Kramsch (1993), advocating the use of literary texts in foreign language teaching, refers to Bakhtin's (1895-1975) distinction between single-voiced and double-voiced discourse, with the literary text as the epitome of the latter. In her view, literary and non-literary discourse differ in degree, but not in kind, with the newspaper article, the essay and the short story on a continuum from single-voiced to double-voiced discourse. Pulverness (1996:26) also relates to and uses Bakhtin's idea that 'all fictional writing manifests the quality of dramatic discourse' to analyse voices in prose fiction. However, Carter and Long (1991) suggest that, in the language and literature classroom, it is necessary to approach such issues with an open mind.

Texts: What to Include?

The necessity of introducing literary texts in the language classroom is an established fact. However, the appropriateness of the texts selected for a particular class remains a crucial factor in the success of the teaching approach followed in that particular class. Texts chosen should not be too long, too complex linguistically, and not too far removed from the world knowledge of the students. However, linguistically simple texts are not always 'simple'. It should be noted as pointed out by Carter (1988) that contemporary literature is generally not always the most accessible. This is especially for non-native, non-European students, because of its reflection of a world, which is usually based on an impersonal industrialised scenario where spiritual values are non-existent.

In addition, experimental usage of the language can give rise to complexity in understanding in many cases, whereas writings from the past may prove to be quite understandable in terms of their comparatively simple setting, theme and use of language producing more personal responses and more direct involvement. The argument regarding the language of a literary work, and especially of the ones from the past, not being typical of the language of daily life, could be overcome by using a proper methodology. Drawing parallel examples or converting old English to new English, for example, from Shakespearean English to modern day English would instil interest in the learner.

One main reason for using literature is to encourage students' creativity. However, when choosing a text, language difficulty has to be considered, so that access is not restricted and the learners can attain a basic level of comprehension. McKay (1986) however, cautions against simplification of text, since this may result in diluting information and reducing cohesion and readability. Students also need to be able to identify with the experience, the thoughts and situations depicted in the text, in order 'to make connection to personal or social significance outside the text' (Brumfit, 1985: 108). Therefore, as McRae (1991:126) suggests, a good choice would be any text that encourages or invites interaction with the world of ideas, a text that 'affirms, confirms and expands the indispensable human capacity to read the world'.

Texts should also provide good potential for a variety of classroom activities, in order to give students more chance to gain true familiarity with any work as a whole. Most importantly, the texts should have the capacity to engage the interest of the student. For example, as noted by Collie and Slater (1987), short stories offer greater variety than longer texts, offering greater chance of finding something to appeal to each individual's tastes and interests, whilst poems offer a rich, varied range and are a source of much enjoyment.

McRae and Vethamani (1999) observe that the growth of strong local literatures in English has triggered a corresponding interest in incorporating such texts into language teaching materials. Vethamani (1996) argues that new literatures are unjustly overlooked in many teaching contexts, whereas their inclusion in the classroom can broaden students' perception of the use of English in wider cultural contexts, thus will continue to fuel interest in using literary texts for cross-cultural exploration. As such, literature lends itself well to investigating similarities and differences between self and others, and to an awareness and understanding of 'the other' (Kramsch 1993).

However, in many EFL contexts there are constraints/restraints on the teacher's part in terms of availability of books, or the set curriculum they are to follow. If the texts are imposed and used year after year, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain one's originality and enthusiasm, both on the parts of teachers and students. Goodwyn and Findlay (1999) point out that teachers teach best when they are enthused about a text/topic they are teaching. Nevertheless, it has already been observed that the available texts and materials can be successfully used to achieve objectives if used properly and systematically.


The above discussion has shown that literary texts can prove very useful in the English language classroom. They stimulate the imagination, offer learners specimens of real language use, allow for group discussions and individual exploration, and are intrinsically more dialogic. They can enhance reading skills, focus attention on combination of words, create a feeling for language, and help draw attention to different types of language usage and levels of discourse. Moreover, a literary passage can be used not only for creative reasons but also for informational, grammar, and vocabulary development purposes. Literary texts can thus be exploited for language learning activities allowing teachers to set questions that focus on much more than the retrieval of information and mechanical exercises.


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About the Author...

Salma Ainy, PhD (University of Nottingham, UK) is associate professor (English Language and Literature) in the School of Social Science, Humanities and Language at Bangladesh Open University
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